Elite troops of women soldiers contributed to the military power of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The troops were dissolved following the fall of Behanzin (Gbêhanzin), during French colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.
Emergence of women soldiers
The development of the slave trade and rivalry between the region’s African kingdoms played a key role in the emergence of a female military corps in the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The methods for enrolling women soldiers evolved over the years: some were delinquents, outsiders or captives from other communities in the region, and some were princesses attracted by weapons; some were drawn by lot, some volunteered and others were conscripted by force.
The slave trade increased considerably in the eighteenth century, in particular in the ports of Ouidah and Lagos, and drastically changed the entire region’s demography.
The Dahomey 'Amazons'
European visitors to Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were astonished by the spectacle of this army of women, in particular its organization, various units and the military parades organized by the Kingdom’s rulers.
This is how they have been known ever since, especially in Europe. However, the title of ‘Dahomey Amazons’, given by Europeans and still used widely in books on them, has no meaning in Benin or among the Fon, where the women were named depending on the weapons they used and the contingent they belonged to (see part 4.)
In most of the writings left behind by the Europeans, the women soldiers are referred to as Amazons, a reference to the legendary women soldiers in Greek mythology.
Probable reasons for the emergence of an army of women in Dahomey
The following are the probable reasons for the lack of men in nineteenth-century Dahomey:
- Male casualties in the wars waged by the kingdom;
- Raids by neighbouring kingdoms on the villages of Dahomey to stock up on male prisoners; and
- Tributes paid in male captives in the eighteenth century by Dahomey to the Kingdom of Oyo.
In 1863, a British naval officer, Arthur Parry Eardley Wilmot, noted a strong demographic imbalance in favour of women (Alpern, 1998).
Probable reasons for the emergence of an army of women in Dahomey (Part 2)
It was likely the lack of men combined with the threat of invasion from the Kingdom of Oyo, which had the strongest army (Alpern, 1998), led the rulers of Dahomey to use women to reinforce their army.
Furthermore, according to certain oral traditions, the rulers of Dahomey enrolled women soldiers to appease the spirit of Queen Tasi Hangbé, twin sister of King Akaba (1685–1708), who is said to have ruled the kingdom singlehanded between the years 1708–1711. She is not mentioned by the Kpanlingan of Abomey, bearers of oral tradition in Abomey, who are supposed to recite the royal lineage.
Enrolment of women soldiers
Originally, enrolment was reserved for young Fon women who either volunteered, were drawn by lot or were forcibly conscripted after committing crimes. Enrolment was then extended to other communities in the region, and from the early nineteenth century young women captured in raids were recruited.
Under the reign of King Ghezo (1818–1858) enrolment campaigns took place every three years,
increasing to once a year in the reign of his successor, Glele (1858–1889). Representatives of the King went from village to village, selecting the most physically apt (tall, strong and agile) girls aged between 12 and 15.
When they arrived in Abomey, a council examined the young recruits.
These enlistment campaigns were daunting for communities. In order to avoid them, some families managed to hide their daughters before the royal representative came round.
For the girls selected, enrolment meant leaving their family and village, forced celibacy and bearing arms to wage war.
Training and priming
Most of the women soldiers’ time was spent in training. This involved wrestling, target practice, obstacle races, large-scale simulated attacks, forest trails and initiation in the bush lasting several days.
Furthermore, they readied themselves through many magico-religious rituals, reciting magical incantations to increase their strength, wearing protective amulets and consulting Bokovon, the seer, who told them which sacrifices to make and rites to accomplish before setting forth into battle.
These rituals helped to instil in them a warrior’s spirit and unflagging courage.
The women soldiers of Dahomey distinguished themselves in the history of Africa as a symbol of courage. However hard the fighting, they never withdrew, while male soldiers were often punished for retreating (Alpern, 1998). King Behanzin, the last great king of this monarchy, relied on their unfailing devotion to resist the French colonial conquest. A very large number of women soldiers gave their lives for that cause.
Battle of Dogba, September 19th, 1892. Illustration by Alexandre d'Albéca, 1895.
According to many historical accounts the women soldiers outshone their male counterparts in all respects, namely discipline, fighting spirit, bravery and devotion to the King.